TV's Best, Worst: A Critical Awakening?

Two years ago, after I lauded "Home Improvement" for its positive - and, in the context of today's prime time network fare, anomalous - portrayal of marriage and family, Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker accused me in print of disliking series which "contain mature or complex moral issues that adults like you and I might enjoy." Not incidentally, Tucker also called "Home Improvement" "stupid."

Actually, I thought "Home Improvement," its praiseworthy moral lessons aside, was funny as well. When it comes to humor, however, there truly is no accounting for taste. For example, why does Tucker, who claims to appreciate maturity and complexity, find the smirky, sophomoric "Friends" hilarious? And why is it that he and so many of his fellow television critics find it so difficult to praise something that is tasteful because it is... tasteful?

About three dozen reviewers, almost all from newspapers, responded to the 29th annual Electronic Media poll to name the best and worst shows. The magazine published the lists of the twenty best and the ten worst in its November 23 issue.

It's hard to argue with the worst-series choices. UPN's deliberately, almost dementedly, offensive "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer," the notorious "comedy" about kinky sex in Abraham Lincoln's White House, is on top. Underneath it are several imbecilic sitcoms - WB's "The Army Show," Fox's "Living in Captivity," NBC's "Veronica's Closet" - and, praise be, not only "Jerry Springer" but also "The Howard Stern Radio Show." Where this sorry group is concerned, moral squalor, poor artistic quality, and viewer preference - many of these shows have been canceled, and Nielsens for most of the survivors are lousy - are well-aligned.

Among the critics' best ten are ABC's "The Practice" at number one, NBC's "Frasier" and "Homicide," Fox's "Ally McBeal" and "The Simpsons," and CBS's "Everybody Loves Raymond." Each is intelligently written, and though all have had at least occasional sexual content, only "Ally" would fairly be dubbed libidinous. The second ten is smuttier and esthetically spottier, with ABC's vulgar "Drew Carey" and NBC's racy "Just Shoot Me" and, yes, "Friends" in the mix.

But if asked to cite twenty top shows, you can't escape raunch. Tom Shales of the Washington Post, perhaps the country's most influential critic, has more than once noted ruefully that the former family hour is turning into a garbage dump. Ken Tucker's Entertainment Weekly colleague Joe Flint has said that it's "hard to argue" with the complaint of show-business giant Steve Allen that prime time is "the filthiest" it's ever been.

It's well and good that elements of Big Media may be coming around. Remember, though, that opinion also is shaped off the national radar screen in places like Milwaukee, where the Journal Sentinel's veteran critic, Mike Drew, wrote recently, "It's hard to keep [sexually themed programming] away from the impressionable young, especially with raunchy promos airing everywhere... As the grandparent of four kids under 14, I'm worried... TV's nonstop, enticing barrage of sexual themes can drown out what parents, teachers, preachers, priests, and rabbis proclaim."

Still, what's missing from the list? Family shows. Granted, this year the critics didn't take cheap shots at such fare, as they too frequently have. (After the 1994 debut of "Touched By an Angel," Joyce Millman - now of Salon, then of the San Francisco Examiner - described it as "another example of why '90s America is the stupidest place on Earth.") Nonetheless, they just can't bring themselves to recognize that many wholesome series are not merely inoffensive; they're compelling. "ER," which qualified for the top twenty, is first-rate, but so are "Early Edition" and "7th Heaven," which didn't. And if there's room on the list for the trendy spirituality of "The X-Files," why not for the timeless spirituality of "Touched By an Angel"?

These are family shows the critics said would never - could never - find an audience in 1990s America. Yet "Angel" continues to reign as the top-rated show on CBS while "7th Heaven" is, far and away, the most popular program on WB.

Television networks listen to critics to a certain extent. Maybe the webs will heed the critics who told Electronic Media that "it was tougher than usual to come up with their ten favorite shows." One, Gail Pennington of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, remarked, "This is the most trouble I've ever had filling out the 'best' part of this list."

And maybe the critics will also start judging TV shows based on society's definition of quality as opposed to their own.